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Iraq to charge Saddam with war crimes
Updated: 2004-07-01 01:25

Iraq's new authorities took legal control of Saddam Hussein and 11 key deputies Wednesday, the government said, setting the stage for a trial for alleged war crimes during the deposed leader's 24 years in power.

A U.S. Army soldier passes a defaced mosaic of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Iraq Wednesday, June 30, 2004. Legal custody of Saddam Hussein and 11 others was transferred to the Iraqis on Wednesday, an international official said. [AP]
In a one line statement, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's office said the Iraqis had assumed legal — but not physical — control, "today, 30th June, at 10:15 in the morning." The 12 defendants are expected to appear in court on Thursday for a formal reading of the charges.

"The first step has happened," Salem Chalabi, the director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal, told The Associated Press. "I met with him (Saddam) earlier today to explain his rights and what will happen."

He refused to elaborate.

The defendants were informed individually of their rights, said an international official who spoke on condition of anonymity. An Iraqi judge witnessed the proceedings.

Saddam, who appeared to have lost weight in confinement, said "Good morning" as he entered the room, according to Chalabi. After being informed that he was being placed under Iraqi jurisdiction, Saddam, who ruled Iraq for nearly 24 years with absolute authority, was ordered "to leave the room," Chalabi added.

The other defendants also were brought into the room individually to hear that they would appear in court Thursday, Chalabi said.

"Some of them looked very worried," Chalabi added.

Saddam will remain in a U.S.-controlled jail guarded by Americans until the Iraqis are ready to take physical custody of him. That is expected to take a long time.

However, the legal transfer means that Saddam and the others are no longer prisoners of war — subject to rights under the Geneva Conventions — but criminal defendants whose treatment will be in accordance with Iraqi law. The change in status gives them the right to attorneys.

Chalabi said earlier that the trials of Saddam and other senior figures likely would not begin before 2005.

L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator, said he was confident that the Iraqis would handle the trials well.

Saddam "will get the kind of justice he denied his own people," Bremer told ABC's "Good Morning America." "It's a wonderful day for the Iraqis to get him under their direct control. It will be a major event."

The crimes against humanity for which Saddam is expected to be tried include the 1988 chemical weapons massacre of Kurds in Halabja, the slaughter of Shiites during a 1991 uprising in southern Iraq, the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Chalabi said Saddam's appearance Thursday at the tribunal, in a courthouse with a prominent clock tower inside Baghdad's sealed-off Green Zone, is expected to be videotaped for public release.

The images would be the first of Saddam the public will have seen since his Dec. 13 capture by U.S. soldiers, when a clip showed the bushy-bearded leader opening his mouth for a dental examination.

The Saddam lieutenants who will also appear include Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali"; former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan; former deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz; and two of Saddam's half brothers.

Already there are pretrial negotiations over permitting Saddam's foreign legal team to work in Iraq, whether to televise the proceedings, and whether to reinstate the death penalty, which Bremer suspended.

Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq's new national security adviser, told Associated Press Television News that he hoped to broadcast the trial live on television so that the world would see "what Saddam has done to virtually every person, every individual in this country,"

He said Saddam would not be allowed to turn the trial into a political game, by calling witnesses such as President Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"Saddam Hussein will be under the legal control of Iraqi law," he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "He is going to be tried according to the Iraqi criminal code."

Preparations for the trial come at an extremely difficult time. U.S. administrators turned over power to a sovereign Iraqi government only Monday. Allawi's government faces a relentless insurgency, and 160,000 U.S.-led foreign troops will remain.

Iraqi officials insist Saddam and the others will get fair trials. Hamid al-Bayati, Iraq's new deputy foreign minister and a leader of the main Shiite Muslim party, said there was "no chance at all" that Saddam might walk out a free man, perhaps on a legal technicality.

"The whole world will see this," said al-Bayati, who said he was tortured in Saddam's prisons in the 1970s. "He won't be able to walk free."

He noted that Saddam's victims are estimated in the hundreds of thousands or more, which means a huge segment of the 26 million Iraqis want to watch him answer for those crimes.

But the trial could contribute to the upheaval in Iraq by polarizing Saddam's supporters and detractors, said Walid Mohammed al-Shibibi, a Baghdad attorney and editor of a legal journal.

"This will escalate into terrorist attacks," he said.

A team of 20 foreign lawyers appointed by Saddam's wife, Sajidah, might not be permitted to represent him because non-Iraqi lawyers — except Syrians and Palestinians — must get approval from the Iraqi Bar Association, said al-Shibibi.

The job of trying and representing Saddam involves personal risk. Already, lawyers working in Iraq's justice system have received death threats — and those involved in the Saddam trial will likely become particular targets.

Ziad al-Khasawneh, one of Saddam's would-be attorneys, said in Amman, Jordan, that the defense team planned to go to Iraq but that Allawi's government had not said whether it would provide security.

"How can the defense team go to a country where it doesn't enjoy any protection? They will kill us there," said an angry al-Khasawneh.

As much as 30 tons of documents and other evidence must be culled. And then there are the potential witnesses, which could be said to include almost every Iraqi.

"If I'm asked to testify I would be willing," al-Bayati said. "But there are so many others who suffered more. There are more serious eyewitnesses."

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